The Secret World is an evocative, luxurious kind of title, a handful of words that conjure up a riddled sprawl of subterranean canals, dew-dropped gateways and darkened under-streets slotted in and around our own humdrum neighbourhoods and cities. It promises a glimpse of a murkier, sexier kind of life that unfolds just out of reach, on the other side of the raindrops, perhaps, or tucked in somewhere behind the fireplace. It practically bubbles with conspiracies, too, and we all love those - presumably because they allow you to believe that everything will make sense if you just stare at it long enough, that there's a governing force at work, however malignant, and that it operates within a galaxy of rules and restrictions, unfailingly listening to a quiet heartbeat of cause and effect. It all sounds a bit like a game, really.
Well, now it is one: an MMO designed by the cheerily unpredictable Ragnar Tornquist, creator of adventure games Dreamfall and The Longest Journey, and a man whose name suggests he belongs inside a fantasy universe - possibly smelting something nasty - rather than at the helm of one. (You can read an interview with Tornquist elsewhere on the site.) On the day I meet him at PAX, Tornquist finds himself in a secret world all of his own, wedged into a flimsy prefab alleyway threaded in amongst the slick bulk of Harmonix's booth where someone appears to be administering an unforgivable shoeing to Eleanor Rigby. "I never thought I'd get tired of the Beatles, but f**king hell," says Tornquist, speaking into a microphone even though I'm about a foot away and one of only three other people in the room. "And I was really looking forward to that game," he sighs.
Well, I'm still looking forward to his game at any rate, and not just because it wasn't put together following close consultations with Yoko Ono. Nobody's seen much of The Secret World in the first two years of its development, however. Early videos, particularly some brooding CGI of a knitwear-clad lady with fearsome highlights, made the game look grown-up and entirely non-traditional - actually, if you took away the shotguns and demons, it could have been an advert for an up-market Eastern skiwear manufacturer - but hard details have been scarce.
Today, Tornquist's willing to pull back the curtain a little bit, and has a thick stack of PowerPoint slides to prove it. He's presenting one of the game's central elements: the trio of secret societies at the heart of the narrative, the three major forces that have shaped his hidden back-stories.
But let's wind things in a little to take stock of what we already know. The Secret World tells the tale of magic-wielding heroes waging an underground war against "zombies, vampires, and that kind of thing" (Tornquist's words) and is set within a dense muddle of conspiracy theories, old wives' ramblings and urban legends. An early teaser suggested that it might have room for all of them, in fact, reeling off everything from secret chambers discovered beneath Arctic wastelands, rumours of a massive cavity within Earth itself, Stonehenge, telepathy, Masonic links within the US government and, naturally, Atlantis. If the development team had let the film run for another twenty seconds, they'd probably have had enough room to connect Lord Lucan and Shergar to that time somebody leaked a pre-release PDF copy of Jamie's Italian onto the internet, and even found the space to cram in a few Your Mom jokes to boot.
Beyond the premise, things get no less mysterious. Tornquist's game won't have classes or levelling, opting instead for a skills-based system that promises flexibility without the grind - the designer has previously stated that simply adding new skills to an existing avatar offers players so many options they'll never have to roll a second character if they don't want to. The Secret World will put a thick crust of mud and rock between PvE and PvP, too - the former, along with the bulk of the game's expansive narrative, unfolding on the surface of the Earth, while PvP takes place inside the hollow interior, as guilds (known as cabals) compete for territory and a precious resource called Anima. It's a land-grab that will feed into the influence your cabals wield in the world above, and there's even a rare concession to bare-faced gaminess in the shape of global and local leaderboards which track all manner of stats. It's also been announced, as if this wasn't all dizzying enough, that the PvP game will include quasi-RTS elements. Next we'll be learning that the whole thing doubles as a decent bread-maker, too.
So pelt-fetching touchstones initially seem few and far between, but Tornquist wasn't going to leave something as handy as factions on the cutting room floor. That said, somewhat typically, his are a lot more arty and contradictory than those many games choose to roll with. None of the secret societies fit neatly into traditional archetypes, and all, in fact, are united by the same ultimate aim - to rid the world of an as yet undefined ancient darkness. Despite that, there are huge differences in how they choose to go about their mission, and all the while, when nobody else is looking, they clash bitterly for control of influence and resources.
The Templars are about as close as The Secret World gets to goodies, according to Tornquist. "These guys are old school," he enthuses, "and they've been fighting darkness since the dawn of mankind." They're noble and bound by an ancient code, but there's also an edge to them, an inflexible faith-based mania that values structure, tradition and discipline above all else. "They don't take any prisoners," Tornquist continues. "To get to the demon in the middle of the village, they'd be very happy to burn the whole place down. They're zealots."
At the opposite end of the spectrum are the Illuminati (a word which, all too suspiciously, Microsoft Office claims not to be aware of). The concept art that accompanies them is big on urban decay - dilapidated inner-city factories with broken windows, where rusting loops of chain swing from the ceiling, the dirt and scrap hiding the entries to the cult's secret chambers. In contrast to the cherry lips and upper-class hauteur of the leather-clad Templar I'm shown (if you squint a bit, it looks like the protectors of the Palace of Solomon have all decided to become bike messengers), the lone Illuminati is practically sexless in a dark blue trenchcoat and futuristic jack boots, with a dead-eyed gas mask covering her face.
"They're the baddies, sworn enemies of the Templars," says Tornquist, adding that they're modern and brutally pragmatic where the Templars are fusty and bound by convention. "They're still trying to eradicate evil, but their methods are questionable. They're ruthless and ambitious, and their organisation is set up like a corporation." He also adds, slightly incongruously, that "they know how to party". Gas masks? Jack boots? Parties? Sounds like a Formula One kind of deal.
Somewhere in between the first two, and perhaps the trickiest group to define, is the Eastern faction, Dragon, with its long-haired militarised Ninjas in sharp-edged, slightly retro uniforms. If the Illuminati and Templars represent two approaches to a new world order, Dragon is a splash of anarchy, manipulating events in accordance with some kind of mysterious design "with an aim to create balance through chaos," says Tornquist. That makes them sound like up-market interior decorators, but in fact "they're the manipulators and agitators in the wars between the secret societies - they like playing the Illuminati and the Templars off against each other, so long as they're there to pick up the pieces."
It's a story-led tour of the factions, with little insight into the gameplay tweaks your choice of secret society will bring other than a hint at the tone of the missions each is likely to land you with - and yet slowly, pieces of the greater game are starting to fall into place. Every secret society will have its own home base, the Templars in London, the Illuminati in New York, and Dragon in amidst the neon and cherry blossoms of Seoul, and Tornquist suggests that your journey through the ranks of your chosen faction will give shape to the story itself as you move from a scrappy initiate to someone who wields real power.
After a tour of the societies, I'm shown an incredibly brief gameplay trailer, focusing almost entirely on action. Chunky, rather colourful figures blast away at lumbering monsters and ravelled undead with everything from shotguns to bursts of magical light, while a bright targeting reticule hogs the centre of the screen. That, along with the drip-drip of new concept art, all leathery uniforms and glinting weaponry, does a lot to dispel any lingering fears that The Secret World is too brainy and delicate to coalesce into a real game. The designs are sharp, certainly, and filled with loving detail, but they wouldn't be out of place in a dozen smart shooters or adventure titles. It's a relief to see that so much energy and cleverness is coming into focus, but you might find yourself feeling just a little wistful at the same time: wistful because The Secret World is conforming, however inevitably, however slightly, to a recognisable type.
But it's hard to worry about that sort of thing for too long. The subject matter is so ripe with potential (even if you think conspiracy theories are stupid, it's hard not to enjoy getting tangled up in them for a few minutes, if only to marvel at the misdirected energy of the whole business) and Tornquist's passion is so coherent and convincing.
And besides all of that, there's something about secrets of all kinds that's worth keeping in mind. They're a thrill to contemplate and a lure that can drive you slightly bonkers, but you often discover that knowing the truth is even better. Two years into development, then, The Secret World is inching ever closer towards real revelations. Dark days are most certainly coming.
The Secret World is in development for PC and Xbox 360. Read our interview with Ragnar Tornquist to find out more.